Herd Chronicles: Jackie's nine games in Buffalo

A year before breaking the MLB color barrier, Robinson's Royals make four trips to Offermann Stadium to face the Bisons

Jackie Robinson with Montreal (National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)

By Brian Frank of HerdChronicles.com | April 14, 2017 11:21 PM ET

This article is written by Brian Frank of HerdChronicles.com, a new website dedicated to some of the many great stories from the storied history of the Buffalo Bisons. Frank has done extensive research on the early days of the Bisons and shares tremendous stories about the team and baseball in the Queen City that are must reads for Buffalo sports fans. Follow them on twitter as well, @HerdChronicles

 

Of all the legendary players who have passed through Buffalo in its long history of professional sports, none has had a greater impact on sports or society than Jack Roosevelt Robinson. In 1946, Jackie Robinson played nine games at second base for the Montreal Royals at Buffalo's Offermann Stadium. Buffalo baseball fans witnessed history as they watched Robinson prepare to break the major league color barrier the following spring.

                 

In August 1945, Brooklyn Dodgers team president and general manager Branch Rickey signed Robinson, who was playing in the Negro American League for the Kansas City Monarchs, with the intention of having him play a year for Brooklyn's International League affiliate in Montreal. In 1946, the baseball world was watching closely to see if Robinson could succeed in the International League.

 

The Royals won the International League pennant in 1945, before losing to Newark in the Governors' Cup. Despite a lot of roster turnover in the offseason, due in large part to players returning home from the war, new manager Clay Hopper's offense remained a juggernaut. Besides Robinson, the 1946 Royals lineup featured first baseman Lester Burge (.285, 15 HR, 101 RBI,) shortstop Al Campanis (.294, 3 HR, 68 RBI,) right fielder Red Durrett (.256, 17 HR, 97 RBI,) catcher Herman Franks (.280, 14 HR, 67 RBI,) third baseman Spider Jorgenen (.293, 5 HR, 71 RBI,) center fielder Earl Naylor (.299, 4 HR, 77 RBI,) third baseman Lew Riggs (.303, 15 HR, 73 RBI,) left fielder Tommy Tatum (.319, 4 HR, 58 RBI, 28 SB,) and center fielder Marv Rackley (.305, 4 HR, 66 RBI 65 SB.)[1] Needless to say, they could put some runs on the board.

 

The 1946 Buffalo Bisons were led by two future Baseball Hall of Famers in General Manager Bucky Harris, and manager Gabby Hartnett. Like Montreal, their offense was also filled with big bats. John McHale, who would go on to become general manager of the Tigers and Braves, and president, executive director and general manager of the Expos, hit .270, 25 HR, 94 RBI. Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer Coaker Triplett was in his first of six seasons in Buffalo, and hit .303, 11 HR, 51 RBI. Vic Wertz, who would go on to play 17 major league seasons, be named to four American League All-Star teams, hit .301, 19 HR, 91 RBI. Third baseman Johnny Bero (.278, 9 HR, 70 RBI,) and second baseman John Radulovich (.295, 9 HR, 63 RBI,) also had big seasons at the plate.

 

Buffalo was anticipating a huge crowd at Offermann Stadium for Jackie Robinson's debut in the Queen City, a doubleheader with the Royals on May 19. Billy Kelly of the Courier-Express described the high African American fan turnout to see Robinson's first game in Buffalo, and wrote that fans filled "the grandstand and boxes and (were) standing three and four deep back of the grandstand seats or anywhere else where a sight of the playing field was possible."[2] In fact, 12,243 fans turned out to see Jackie Robinson and the league leading Montreal Royals take on the Bisons. The Royals came into the game with a 17-8 record, two and a half-games ahead of second place Syracuse, and four games ahead of the third place Bisons. Jackie Robinson had proven to be everything his fans had hoped for so far in the season, hitting .333, with 26 runs scored and 13 stolen bases in 26 games played.

                 

In the first game of the twin bill, Robinson was 0-1 with four walks. He also scored a run in the first inning, and showed his signature speed when he raced home from first base on a double by Tom Tatum. The Bisons ended up winning 7-3 by coming back to score five runs in the final two innings. Bisons left-hander Billy Pierce, who went on to win 211 major league games, make seven A.L. All-Star games, and have his number retired by the Chicago White Sox, threw a complete game for Buffalo in the win, giving up two runs on six hits and nine walks.

                 

Between games of the doubleheader, there was a ceremony honoring Robinson and Montreal's other African American player, pitcher Roy Partlow.[3] A welcoming committee of prominent Buffalo citizens, including the chairman of the Buffalo Common Council, presented Robinson and Partlow with gifts on the field, "including cash, wallets, wrist watches and travel bags."[4]

                 

The Bisons also won the second game, by a score of 5-4, on a Chester Wieczorek home run in the final inning, to move within two games of Montreal in the standings.[5] The highlight in the game for Jackie Robinson, who was 1-for-3 at the plate, was legging out an infield single on a shot off third baseman Johnny Bero's glove. Robinson was then thrown out by catcher Martin Tabacheck on a pitchout, when he attempted to steal second base. Robinson also dazzled the crowd with his outstanding fielding. Cy Kritzer of the Buffalo News noted, "In the opener he robbed Bero and Ray Hamrick of hits, and in the second game he broke up two potentially big Buffalo innings by extraordinary fielding plays on smashes by Vic Wertz. He went to his left in the fifth inning for a sliding pickup to start a double play."[6]

 

The Royals returned to Buffalo at the end of May for a two game series with the Herd. In the first game, Robinson hit a triple in the first inning, but was thrown out trying to steal home. He then beat out an infield hit in the fifth inning, stole second, and scored a run. In the ninth, he reached on a bunt single and scored another run. He finished the day 3-for-5, with a triple, two runs scored and a stolen base, in the Royals 5-1 win. W.S. Coughlin of the Courier-Express remarked on Robinson's stellar play at Offermann Stadium noting that he "seems to thrive on local atmosphere."[7]

                 

In game two of the series, Buffalo lost by a score of 4-2, despite outhitting Montreal 14-8. The Royals had two outfield assists in the ninth inning to snuff out a Buffalo comeback attempt. Jackie Robinson went 1-for-3 with a single and a run scored.[8] The win put Montreal ten games ahead of Buffalo in the standings, however, Robinson suffered a strained calf in the game, an injury that would sideline him for most of the next three weeks.

                  

The teams didn't meet again until July 3. With Robinson back in the lineup, Montreal was starting to pull away in the standings. The Royals were 49-25, and had a five and a half-game lead over second place Syracuse. Buffalo was 36-38, and 13 games behind the Royals. In the first game of the series, Robinson was given the day off by Royals manager Clay Hopper. Montreal scored seven runs in the second to take a 7-1 lead, but Buffalo battled back to tie the game at 10-10, by scoring two runs in the bottom of the ninth. The hero of the day for the Bisons was pitcher Zeb Eaton, who entered the game in the second inning for a struggling Rufus Gentry. Eaton did his best with both his arm and his bat to keep Buffalo in the game. At the plate, Eaton hit a three-run home run, had two singles, and knocked an RBI double off the wall in the ninth to send the game to extra innings. However, Montreal's Jack Jorgensen singled home a run in the tenth to win the game for the Royals, 11-10.

 

The next day the teams played an Independence Day doubleheader, before a crowd of 10,159. Buffalo won the first game, 11-7, behind leadoff hitter Neil Berry, who was 4-for-4, with a double, a stolen base, and three runs scored. The Royals bounced back to take game two, 10-4. Jackie Robinson was 3-for-5, with three singles, a run scored, and two runs batted in, in the first game, and was given the second game off.

                 

In mid-July, after Buffalo lost three out of four at Montreal's Delorimier Stadium, the teams immediately came back to Buffalo to play another doubleheader. The Bisons lost the first game, 7-3, but rallied to take the nightcap, 7-6. W. S. Coughlin of the Courier-Express wrote that in the first game, Montreal pitcher Ben Cardoni "had the advantage of some elegant defensive work featuring Jackie Robinson who participated in three squelching double killings and handled nine chances flawlessly."[9] Unfortunately, Robinson had to leave the second game in the fourth inning because of his nagging leg injury. Remarkably, he was 2-for-5, with two runs, a run batted in, three walks, and two stolen bases on the day before exiting with a sore leg. The hero of the day for Buffalo was center fielder Vic Wertz, who had four hits, including a pair of two-run home runs, the second of which broke a 5-5 tie to help the Bisons win the second game.

                 

After splitting the doubleheader, Montreal led the International League with a 60-28 record. Second place Syracuse was a distant 11 games behind the leaders. Buffalo was now in fifth place, 17 games out, but still flirting with a .500 record, at 44-46.

 

The Bisons and Royals wouldn't meet again for over a month. By that time, Buffalo had climbed back into second place, with a 71-63 record, but 17½ games behind Montreal, who were an incredible 87-44, and running away with the division.

 

On August 22, Jackie Robinson put on a show for Offerman Stadium's largest crowd for a night game of the season. In the first inning, Robinson walked. After he made it around to third base, 8,657 Bisons fans witnessed Jackie Robinson steal home for the fourth time of the season. He also, once again, awed the crowd with his defense at second base. W.S. Coughlin reported that Robinson "spearheaded a brilliant defense by participating at pivot man in four squelching double plays that flattened out potential Bison rallies."[10] Cy Kritzer of the Buffalo Evening News wrote how Robinson didn't have to move a step to field Coaker Tripplett's grounder in the ninth, and that "It is astonishing how smartly he plays in the right spot for the Herd hitters."[11]

                 

The Royals also won the next day, the final time the two teams would meet during the season, by a score of 8-3. Jackie Robinson was 1-for-5, with a stolen base. After the win, Montreal had a 19½ game lead over second place Buffalo. Two days later, the Royals won the second game of a doubleheader in Rochester to clinch their second consecutive International League pennant.

 

Montreal finished the season 100-54, 18½ games ahead of second place Syracuse. Their offensive numbers for the season are staggering. They led the league in hitting at .288, and in runs scored, with 1019, an amazing 217 runs ahead of Buffalo, who were second. They had 189 stolen bases, 105 ahead of any other team. Buffalo finished with a respectable 78-75 record, but in fifth place, 21½ games out of first. The Royals defeated Newark four games to two in the first round of the I.L. playoffs, beat Syracuse four games to one in the Governors' Cup finals, and then topped Louisville in six games to win the Junior World Series. The '46 Royals are ranked as one of the greatest teams in the history of Minor League Baseball.[12]

                 

Jackie Robinson finished the year leading the International League in hitting at .349, a new Montreal team record. He also finished first in the league in runs scored with 113, and second in stolen bases with 40. In the nine games he played at Offermann Stadium, he was 11-for-29, good for a .379 average, with six runs scored, three runs batted in, a triple, and four stolen bases, including his steal of home. His success in the 1946 season proved he not only deserved a chance to play in the major leagues, but that he had the ability to be a star there. Every baseball fan knows what happened next. On April 15, 1947, he broke the major league color barrier, when he was the starting first baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field against the Boston Braves. The rest, as they say, is history, as baseball and America were changed forever.  

 

[1] Statistics are from the 1946 season.

[2] Billy Kelly, "Before and After," Buffalo Courier-Express, May 20, 1946.

[3] Partlow pitched in ten games for the Royals during the 1946 season, making four starts. He was 2-0, with a 5.59 ERA.

[4] W.S. Coughlin, "Bisons Beat Royals Pair; Red Sox Split Before 57, 130," Buffalo Courier-Express, May 20, 1946.

[5] The game was only seven innings long.

[6] Cy Kritzer, "Triumphant Bisons Praise Brilliant Fielding of Robinson, Negro Ace Chokes Off Several Hits, But Herd Rallies to Double Win," Buffalo Evening News, May 20, 1946.

[7] W.S. Coughlin, "Herd Drops 8th Straight on Buker's 5-Hit Hurling," Buffalo Courier-Express, May 29, 1946.

[8] The Buffalo Courier-Express' box score for the game lists Robinson as being 1-or-2. However The Sporting News and other out of town newspapers show that he went 1-for-3. So the Courier-Express box score may just be a typo. 

[9] W.S. Coughlin, "Wertz Raps Two Homers, Second Decides Nightcap," Buffalo Courier-Express, July 15, 1946.

[10] W.S. Coughlin, "Crowd of 8,657 On Hand As Herd Bows To Leaders," Buffalo Courier-Express, August 23, 1946.

[11] Cy Kritzer, "Royals Only 3 Games from League Pennant after 4-3 Victory Here," Buffalo Evening News, August 23, 1946.

[12] The 1946 Royals were rated the 84th greatest minor league team ever, as part of Minor League Baseball's 100th Anniversary Celebration in 2001. http://www.milb.com/milb/history/top100.jsp?idx=84

{13} Above photo of Jackie Robinson in a Montreal Royals uniform is courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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